In the episode on the development of rail transport, ("Fuel to the Flame," episode 6) James
Burke mentions in passing that
"the railroad changed society genetically" because people began to marry outside their villages.
Documenting that claim
requires a bit of digging through chronicled events of the 18th and 19th centuries. Often such
problems of inbreeding are
buried in works devoted to other topics and sometimes they are there only to add certain nuances
to the mood. By his
statement, Burke gives the impression that once people started to travel and to intermarry
between villages, the genetic
change was abrupt. But there were many villages in England with a relatively static genetic stock
well into the 19th century.
Even today many villages are inhabited by the same families who settled there centuries ago.
Here are two comments on
the possible effects of inbreeding. The first is a description of some genetic disorders in one
English village in the latter part
of the 19th century. It is taken from Further Chronicles of Fairacre, by Miss Read (Mrs.
Miss Clare Remembers
Looking back later, to those early days at Beech Green, Miss Clare was amazed to think
how many subnormal and eccentric
people there were among that small number in those late Victorian days. There were many
reasons. Inbreeding was a common cause,
for lack of transport meant that the boys and girls of the village tended to marry each other, and
the few families there became intricately
related. Lack of skilled medical attention, particularly during childbirth, accounted for some
deformities of mind and body, and the dread
of mental hospitals - sadly justified in many cases - kept others from seeking help with their
problems. Certainly, when Dolly first went
to live at Beech Green, there were half a dozen souls in the neighborhood who were as much in
need of attention as poor Mabel.
There was the boy who had epileptic fits, who sat in the desk next to Ada, and was looked
upon with more affection than distress
by his classmates, as the means of enlivening Mr Finch's boring lessons. There was old Mrs
Marble, who gibbered and shook her fist
at the children from the broken window of her filthy cottage near the school, and who would
certainly have been ducked in the horsepond
had she had the misfortune to have been born a century earlier. There was a very nasty man who
delighted in walking about the woods
and lanes with his trousers over his arm, frightening the women and little girls out of their wits,
but excused by the men as 'only
happening when the moon was at the full, poor fellow'.
Then there were the three White children, abysmally slow at lessons, but with tempers of
such uncontrollable violence that the
whole school went in terror of them. How much of this vicious frenzy was due to mental
disorder, and how much to their parents'
treatment of it, was debatable. It was the custom of Mr and Mrs White to lock their refractory
offspring in a cupboard under the stairs
where, in the smelly darkness among the old shoes and coats that hung there, they were allowed
to scream, sob, fight, pummel the door,
and exhaust their hysteria before being let out again, some hours later, white and wild-eyed and
ready to fall into their nightmare-haunted
Even the great ones of the village had their sufferings. The lady of the manor, Mrs Evans,
whose visits to the school meant
much curtseying and bobbing, had one frail chick among her six sturdy ones, and Miss Lilian was
never seen without a maid or her
governess in attendance ready to direct her charge's wan look towards anything of cheer.
As young Dolly soon discovered, Beech Green had its darker side, the reverse of the
bright flower-decked face which charmed
the newcomers. But it all added to the excitement of daily living. It gave the solemn little girl a
chance to observe human frailties and
quirks of behavior, and gave her too an insight into the courage and good humor with which her
fellows faced personal tragedy.
These early lessons were to stand her in good stead, for before long she too would be
involved in a family disaster whose
repercussions were to echo down many years of her adult life.
In welcoming all that life in Beech Green offered her, in both happiness and horror, the
child unwittingly prepared herself for
the testing time which lay ahead.
The second is from Thomas Jefferson on Democracy and is taken from a
letter by him to H. Langdon in 1810. Notice
that Jefferson is a bit ambiguous as to the cause of madness of Kings. Does he think it the result
(Marriages only within royal families) or environment (idleness, pampering and banishing
"whatever might lead them
to think")? Remember, it would be another 55 years before Gregor Mendel published his laws of
genetics and it
would be a while after that before people realized that humans follow the same genetic laws as do
European monarchs--fools and madmen. To J. Langdon, 1810
The practice of Kings marrying only in the families of Kings, has been that of Europe for
some centuries. Now, take any race of animals,
confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye, a stable or a stateroom, pamper them
with high diet, gratify all their sexual
appetites, immerse them in sensualities, nourish their passions, let everything bend before them,
and banish whatever might lead them
to think, and in a few generations they become all body and no mind . . . Such is the regimen in
raising Kings, and in this way they have
gone on for centuries.
While in Europe, I often amused myself with contemplating the characters of the then reigning sovereigns . . . Louis XVI was a fool, of my own knowledge . . . The King of Spain [Charles IV] was a fool, and of Naples [Ferdinand IV] the same. They passed their lives in hunting, and despatch two couriers a week, one thousand miles, to let each other know what game they had killed the preceding days. The King of Sardinia [Victor Amadeus III] was a fool. All these were Bourbons. The queen of Portugal [the Mad Maria], a Braganza, was an idiot by nature. And so was the King of Denmark [Christian VII]. Their sons, as regents, exercised the powers of government. The King of Prussia [Frederick William II], successor to the great Frederick, was a mere hog in body as well as in mind. Gustavus [III] of Sweden, and Joseph [II] of Austria, were really crazy, and George [III] of England, you know, was in a straight waistcoat (straight jacket -- O.S.). There remained, then, none but old Catharine, who had been too lately picked up to have lost her common sense.... These animals had become without mind and powerless; and so will every hereditary monarch be after a few generations. . . . And so endeth the book of Kings, from all of whom the Lord deliver us.